I have two surviving papers from this course: one short, the other longer. I got an A on both. Brady even included a pun in his comments on the short paper, which was on a poem by Thomas Wyatt, in which a central metaphor was a filesmith's file. Along with the grade, Brady wrote: "Far superior to the rank and file." (He did not however get my joking reference to a contemporary novel I was enthusiastic about: Richard Farina's Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me.) On my longer paper on Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, he disapproved of the "staccato style," but concluded "it's a very good job."
Truth is I didn't much care for 16th century literature--but it is interesting that the approach I took to the Faerie Queene was to focus on "innocence as the essence of ideal love," carrying on a theme I followed in 20th century writer Scott Fitzgerald in winter term. One paragraph is worth quoting to indicate my thoughts and feelings on the subject at that time, and for years later:
The chief element of this course that I remember is an assigned book: The Allegory of Love by C.S. Lewis, particularly the first two chapters, on Courtly Love and on Allegory. Impressions of these lasted beyond the course.
Now I come to the course on Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau taught by Douglas Wilson in spring 1967. The opportunity to read and study these two writers has had perhaps the most lasting effect on my life of any literature course in college. I can't imagine my life if I hadn't read them that tumultuous spring. They were a necessary connection to nearly everything that came before, and nearly everything that would come after.
As with the Walt Whitman/Wallace Stevens course the spring before, Doug Wilson's enthusiasm infused this experience. I can't read any of these writers--Whitman, Stevens, Emerson or Thoreau--without thinking of Doug Wilson.
|My 1967 copy, upon which I scrawled|
an Emerson sentence: "Why should I vapor
and play the philosopher, instead of
balancing the best I can this dancing
balloon?" Good question. My
rueful answer: grades.
Emerson's best known works were his essays, and Thoreau's was Walden. But the specific books Wilson chose both broadened the view of these writers, and placed their work in context.
Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Riverside paperback edited by Stephen E. Whicher, placed Emerson's major essays in the context of his journal entries surrounding the times of their composition. The book also included Emerson's poems, which Wilson did not neglect in class. We probably were assigned the Prentice-Hall volume of Emerson criticism, also edited by Stephen Whicher, along with Milton Konovitz.
These kinds of contexts not only informed the main texts but made the course more involving, more personal, and more of an adventure.
Unlike Whitman and Stevens, Emerson and Thoreau came from the same place at the same historical moment--in fact they were close friends for years, and the younger Thoreau even lived for awhile in the Emerson household. That historical moment involved the Transcendentalist movement, so we had Selected Writings of the American Transcendentalists (Signet paperback) as background (My copy has underlining only in the introduction and first chapter.)
My feeling for Emerson and Thoreau was genuine during the course, but my sense of them in history and literary history comes later, as well as the obviously inaccessible knowledge of their role in my personal history. Surviving papers show concerns somewhat derived from academic questions that were probably prominent at that moment, and an approach that still derives largely from philosophical analysis.
I have a rough draft and lots of page references for a long paper on Thoreau that grapples with questions and interactions of intellect and feeling, with one sentence I still like: "Reason is that faculty which is quite fond of producing reasons." This concern would thread itself through the spring and well beyond; I'm immediately reminded for example the work of Jung, James Hillman and others, in which intellect and feeling are among the orchestrated elements of the human soul.
A short paper wound its way through Emerson's essay on Art, with reference to contemporary trends in art, of which I actually knew little. My final paper on Emerson was more ambitious, returning to the theme of innocence (footnotes include references to a book called Radical Innocence by Ihab Hassan, though I have no memory of it--some credit Hassan with the term "postmodernism"), the nature of good and evil, and Transcendentalism vs. existentialism. The paper is interesting but mostly an emotional mess, clearly written with a distracted mind and a broken heart. It marks the low point of my spring affair, as well as a surfeit of other influences--the aftereffects of campus visits by Gary Snyder and novelist/activist Mitchell Goodman among them.
After this course at Knox, I acquired various collections of Emerson, including several old hardbacks: a Greystone Press edition of essays, the Modern Library abridgement of his journals, and a Chelsea Classics edition of Representative Men.
To a paperback edition of Thoreau: The Major Essays (Dutton), I added new editions of some late Thoreau works: Faith in a Seed (Island Press 1993, edited by Bradley P. Dean), which calls itself Thoreau's Last Manuscript, at least until Wild Fruits:Thoreau's Rediscovered Last Manuscript (Norton 1999, also edited by Bradley P. Dean.) I also got a few more books on the transcendentalists, including Philip F. Gura's 2007 history, American Transcendentalism.
I also received (as review copies) several in the series of Yale University Press annotated Thoreau volumes, but I didn't care for the format (two columns of text, with annotations on both sides of them, plus a lot of white space.) I did hold onto one of them--I to Myself, a selection from the journals.
But my major new adventure into Emerson and Thoreau began when I read a review by John Banville in the New York Review of Books of December 3, 2009. The review began with the greatest opening sentence of any review I've ever read, and quite possibly my favorite sentence ever. It is: "Surely mankind's greatest invention is the sentence."
I've been wrapping my head around that ever since.
Over the next year or so I read his big three: Emerson: The Mind on Fire (U. of CA 1995), Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (U. of CA 1986) and William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (Houghton Mifflin 2007.) They led me as well to Richardson's selections of William James essays and of Emerson's essays, lectures and poems. All three of the biographies are excellent in approach and as writing.
version of it on this site for awhile.) Then when Robinson visited Arcata several years ago, he advised his audience to read an entry in Thoreau's journals every morning, as he does.
But Emerson and certainly Thoreau went beyond the pastoral identification with innocence as in Spenser or even Shakespeare, to reclaim nature itself and the beauty and essentiality of the wild in the world and in the human soul ("In wildness is the preservation of the world"--Thoreau.) That notion links them forward to poet-ecologist Gary Snyder and ecologist-poet Paul Shepard, and back even farther than English literature goes, to the Native American and other Indigenous and original cultures developed in the far past.